Following 2011's insulting "Cars 2
"a grating, violent, soulless spy adventure that spit in the face of every wise, touching message 2006's "Cars
" imparted about the importance of slowing down and cherishing the journey rather than the destinationa major overhaul was in order for the auto-centric Pixar series. Executive producer and former director John Lasseter clearly listened to the widespread criticisms, because "Cars 3" has delivered the necessary recalibration. This second sequel, the directorial debut of Brian Fee (storyboard artist of 2008's "Wall-E
"), written by Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson (2009's "Up
") and Mike Rich (2010's "Secretariat
"), finds a story fit for telling in a follow-up worthy of succeeding the original film. Smartly, all involved pretend "Cars 2
" never existed. That's for the best.
As the latest Piston Cup season winds down, the winning streak of professional race car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) comes to an abrupt end with the appearance of pompous next-generation rookie Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). Four months after getting himself into a nasty wreck, Lightning returns to his home in Radiator Springs, deflated and wondering if his best days are behind him. His last chance to reclaim victory lies in the newly built, state-of-the-art Rusteze Racing Center. Coached by the motivational Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonso), Lightning must first rid himself of his lingering baggage and ego if he is to have a chance at once again taking the coveted Piston Cup.
"Cars 3" features a rather standard champion-turned-underdog plot, but has several things going for it. The film's noble, often tough themesabout aging, about perseverance, about lingering sexism prevalent in the world of sportshold such a truth it makes no difference that all the characters are anthropomorphized motor vehicles. The picture's decidedly gentle tone, one of warm humor and ultimate earnestness, is wholly in keeping with the timbre of the first "Cars
." The nearly photorealistic computer animation is stunning, leading one to wonder how Pixar can possibly continue to raise the bar in their painstaking attention to detail. The central hero is once again Lightning McQueen rather than his faithful, wisecracking tow truck friend Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), a character who is charming in small doses but was interminable when made the co-lead in "Cars 2
." Lightning's attorney girlfriend Sally (Bonnie Hunt) is also happily back, though in her case she is deserving of a more prominent role.
The movie's best addition is Lightning's trainer Cruz Ramirez, once a go-getter athlete who opted to table her own racing dreams when she was met from all sides by naysayers. Cristela Alonso is a highlight voicing this likable, affecting role, bringing a history full of buried regret and confidence to a car wrongfully led to believe she didn't have what it takes to compete. With the wisdom of dearly departed former Piston Cup champion Doc Hudson (played by the late Paul Newman, briefly heard here) whispering in his ear, Lightning and Cruz befriend each other while working together, their trust turning to mutual mentorship. To get there, though, Lightning will first make the same mistakes so many other have before him in underestimating his trainer's full abilities. The lesson he learns about treating everyone equally couldn't be more valuable and timely.
If "Cars 3" is a laudable sequel, it is no match for the divine "Cars
," which it unequivocally emulates time and again. The sports training narrative is overly familiar and energy eventually flags in the second act. The time away from the comforting Radiator Springs and its lovely residents also goes on too long, but at least here Lightning's journey is one of personal consequence and gravity rather than a strictly disposable tale involving convoluted espionage and exploding vehicular homicide. The climax set at the waterfront Florida 500 race finds a savvy way to stay true to its messages while nonetheless offering an affirming resolution. To paraphrase a Bruce Springsteen song briefly heard being sung in a karaoke bar, in the wink of a young car's eye the glory days will one day pass the fallible Lightning McQueen by. He sees it in his rearview mirror, off in the distance but edging closer. By the end, he understands it's a part of life, just as driving will always be in his.